Minneapolis business and city leaders are adding their support to Bob Lux's downtown plan.
Developers pushing for a Minneapolis casino have convinced several key business leaders and elected officials that glitzy gambling will juice up the city's storied entertainment hub. But divisions remain over the wisdom of dropping a casino into an urban core.
The eight-month-old proposal to redevelop the struggling Block E retail complex on Hennepin Avenue got new life last week when Mayor R.T. Rybak hailed the casino as a possible funding source for a new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis.
While developer Bob Lux faces legal and political obstacles before the roulette wheels start spinning, the casino proposal already is evoking strong feelings in Minneapolis.
Some say it will bring an influx of jobs, visitors and money to the area and reinvigorate a critical piece of real estate. Others, like three Minneapolis state lawmakers who spoke up last week, warn that it will feed the habit of gambling addicts.
The debate echoes what's happening across the nation, as cities such as Cleveland prepare to join Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia in hosting urban casinos. Chicago leaders want one as well, but that's tied up at the Illinois capital.
Lux's project would be the first truly urban casino in Minnesota -- apart from a small one in Duluth.
While a casino packed with food and shows can squeeze the life out of surrounding restaurants and theaters -- sometimes called "cannibalization" -- Lux said Block E wouldn't be the "big sucking sound, where it sucks everything in."
"There's no theater space in here. There's no performing space. There's limited restaurants and limited bars so that it's not all about Block E," Lux said. "[If] Block E will work, we need to have enough restaurant and bar experience so it is a great place to go," but before or after other destinations.
The surrounding attractions include downtown's theaters, sports venues, hotels and restaurants. That's not to say there wouldn't be plenty of gambling. Behind the casino's massive glass facade, visitors would find slot machines, craps, baccarat and roulette.
Lux says he plans to offer free parking up the street to people who stop in the casino and also want to spend some time elsewhere downtown. The idea is that the whole package will appeal to the under-55 crowd of the region.
The numbers attributed to the project are undoubtedly enticing for downtown boosters: a 5 percent annual improvement in downtown hotel occupancy, more than 2,400 permanent union jobs, at least $200 million in private funding, millions of dollars generated for state and local coffers.
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research in Nevada, said the economic impact of casinos on urban cores is hard to quantify, since there are so many factors involved.
"On one hand you could be drawing more people downtown," Schwartz said. "On the other hand, people could be just going there and spending money they would have spent elsewhere."
Business support pops up
Lux's pitch is resonating with several key players in the Minneapolis business community, such as Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Klingel's board has not taken a stance, but he said no members have called him to oppose it.
"Casinos are huge magnets," Klingel said, noting that recent research has found that people outside the area don't realize what's in the Twin Cities until they visit. "We don't see it as cannibalization at all."
Other supporters include Chambers hotel owner and Hennepin Avenue booster Ralph Burnet, who says "it will attract locals. It will attract out-of-towners."
Two key players on the Minneapolis City Council, development committee chairwoman Lisa Goodman and President Barb Johnson, said the business support helped sell them on the idea. "There's dollars on the line there," Johnson said. "And if they think it's a good thing, I'm impressed by that."
Not everyone is convinced. Council Member Betsy Hodges worries about the casino perpetuating gambling addiction and still suspects it may sap business from other establishments.
Sam Grabarski, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, says his 50-member board of directors has mixed feelings. "The Downtown Council's large board is reflective of the business community at large, with some more convinced than others that a casino is good for a central business district or not," Grabarski said.
The Minneapolis Downtown Neighborhood Association -- which represents people who live downtown -- is torn over the project, said Chairman Gerry Ewald, who wants to know more about the project before making up his mind. "Versus an empty block, I'd like to see something there," Ewald said. "And at the moment retail and restaurants don't seem like that's been the most successful use of the block."
The project doesn't seem to be garnering much support among the Minneapolis delegation at the Legislature, all of whom are DFLers. Three representatives of the city lined up with Republican colleagues at the Capitol to decry the expansion of gambling.
Rep. Jim Davnie, who represents a swath of south Minneapolis, said the casino "may start with the promise of being high end and fancy and suit-and-tie," but will deteriorate when the model does not work.
"It will increase our costs for law enforcement," Davnie said. "It will increase our social service costs, in terms of issues around addiction and negative family behaviors and family breakdown as a result of gambling."
Yet Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said the casino will likely take a bite out of crime on Hennepin Avenue, thanks to better lighting, trained security guards and cameras. "These measures, coupled with the proposals I have seen that include entertainment and high-end restaurants in the block, will displace criminal activity," Dolan said.
Council Member Gary Schiff supports the idea but wants to see the casino jobs or revenues benefit high-poverty areas in Minneapolis. Rybak also wants it to help support American Indians in Minneapolis.
Lux said he intends to win over both of them by establishing a training and education program that recruits workers from "the hardest hit on the South Side and the hardest hit on the North Side that really could use the jobs and the stabilization that we could bring through a facility like this."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper